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FEATURES - SWING IF YOU'RE WINNING

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The Tories have been consistently ahead of the other parties at a local level. But will this advantage be transferr...
The Tories have been consistently ahead of the other parties at a local level. But will this advantage be transferred to central government? Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher report (click map to view full-size image)

This year's local election contests have been even more deeply buried beneath the sound and fury of the general election than they were in 1997 and 2001.

The Conservatives did relatively well at council level in both those contests, not least because the post-unitary counties contain most of what remains of Conservative heartland territory in England. Indeed, they currently control fully half of the 34 English shires.

On one reading of our analysis of recent local elections, it is possible the party will make further advances. The Tories have been consistently ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats at a local level throughout this parliament. In a 'normal' year, we would expect a similar result at the annual local elections. Labour would struggle to entice its traditional supporters to the polls, the Tories would relish the opportunity to give the government a bloody nose and the Lib Dem campaign would be carefully targeted against whichever party was perceived to be the enemy in different local areas.

However, the concurrent general election changes almost everything. Even if turnout remains at a similar level to 2001 when just six in 10 electors voted, it will still be almost twice the usual local election figure. Moreover, almost all those who do vote will cast both general and local election ballots. Although perhaps one in four of them will choose different parties at the two contests, the net impact on party performance is likely to be relatively modest. In 1997 and 2001, both the Tories and Labour did, on average, less well locally than nationally, whereas Lib Dem support was some five points higher at local level.

So, notwithstanding the usual local variations and oddities, the truth is that the pattern of local election votes next week is likely to be broadly the same as those cast in the general election.

Substantial council seat gains for the Tories will come only as an accompaniment to the party eating far into Labour's parliamentary majority. The polls at present do not suggest that is likely.

Much the same is likely to apply in the four mayoral contests. The independent incumbents in Hartlepool and Stoke-on-Trent will find it harder to persuade electors to split the vote in their favour, and the Tory in North Tyneside will be only too aware her party has never polled a plurality of votes across the borough at a general election.

The picture is further complicated by extensive boundary changes in 27 counties, making it well-nigh impossible to identify marginal divisions and the swing required for various outcomes.

To help LGC readers pick their way through this minefield, we have devised an exclusive guide to the stateof play in each council with elections. It shows who is currently in control and, where possible, the swing needed for a change to take place as well as the key wards and divisions.

>> Read Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher's unique analysis of the election results in the 12 may issue, and visit www.lgcnet.com for election news as it happens.

Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, directors, LGC Election Centre,

University of Plymouth

Banana skins in the Unitary and Mayoral elections

Unitaries

Bristol (NOC)

Lib Dem will be looking to supplant Lab as largest party. Their targets will be four wards won by Lab in 2001, but by Lib Dem in 2003.

Isle of Wight (NOC)

Con won the vote in both the council and parliamentary contests in 2001, though ended up with fewer seats than Lib Dem. Likely to remain NOC this time around.

Stockton-on-Tees (Lab)

All-out elections on new boundaries - possible Lab loss

to NOC

Mayoral contests

Doncaster (Lab)

One of the few original mayoral results that went according to the book. Unlikely to be a surprise this time either.

Hartlepool (Ind) Hartlepool United mascot H'Angus the Monkey might find it difficult to hang on, with people voting in a general election at the same time. There's a limit to split ticket voting.

North Tyneside (Con)

Con have now won this twice - in 2002 and at a subsequent by-election. The general election complicates matters for them, as Tynemouth is now only a distant parliamentary prospect and Tyneside North a Labour shoo-in.

Stoke-on-Trent (Ind)

Mike Wolfe was elected mayor, despite coming second in first-choice votes, with the BNP a close third. This time, Labour has a new candidate and is likely to find the couple of hundred extra votes required for success.

Our Predictions

Seven counties are most vulnerable to a power shift, with the Tories looking to take Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Worcestershire

Cumbria (NOC)

Con could become largest party with four gains from Lab, but it would take a near 7% swing compared with what was needed in 2001

Cheshire (Con)

Con control vulnerable to a 3% swing to Lib Dem in Macclesfield district alone. Con should hold on unless the national election is a disaster for them

Northamptonshire (Lab)

Lab defending narrow majorities, both on the council and in several marginal constituencies in the county. Con need four gains for control - a swing of 3% in East Northamptonshire alone will do the trick

Somerset (NOC)

Lib Dem polled fewer votes than Con in 2001 but were only just short of a majority. Both parties are now defending several tight county divisions and one super-marginal parliamentary constituency each

Northumberland (Lab)

Lab's strength in more urban parts of the county like Blyth Valley and Wansbeck should be enough to see them through again

Lincolnshire (Con)

Con are a long way ahead. But the fallout from the Speechley affair might bring some sharp changes of fortune

Hertfordshire (Con)

Con will be looking to stretch their three-seat majority from 2001. On the other hand, control is vulnerable to losing just two of the 10 divisions where their majority over Lab or Lib Dem is less than 10%

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